“This is deadly stuff,” Trump told Woodward on February 7.
In a series of interviews with Woodward, Trump revealed that he had a surprising level of detail about the threat of the virus earlier than previously known. “Pretty amazing,” Trump told Woodward, adding that the coronavirus was maybe five times “more deadly” than the flu.
Trump’s admissions are in stark contrast to his frequent public comments at the time insisting that the virus was “going to disappear” and “all work out fine.”
The book, using Trump’s own words, depicts a President who has betrayed the public trust and the most fundamental responsibilities of his office. In “Rage,” Trump says the job of a president is “to keep our country safe.” But in early February, Trump told Woodward he knew how deadly the virus was, and in March, admitted he kept that knowledge hidden from the public.
The startling revelations in “Rage,” which CNN obtained ahead of its September 15 release, were made during 18 wide-ranging interviews Trump gave Woodward from December 5, 2019 to July 21, 2020. The interviews were recorded by Woodward with Trump’s permission, and CNN has obtained copies of some of the audio tapes.
The book also contains harsh evaluations of the President’s leadership on the virus from current officials.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top infectious disease expert, is quoted telling others Trump’s leadership was “rudderless” and that his “attention span is like a minus number.”
“His sole purpose is to get reelected,” Fauci told an associate, according to Woodward.
‘The virus has nothing to do with me’
Woodward reveals new details on the early warnings Trump received — and often ignored.
In a January 28 top secret intelligence briefing, national security adviser Robert O’Brien gave Trump a “jarring” warning about the virus, telling the President it would be the “biggest national security threat” of his presidency. Trump’s head “popped up,” Woodward writes.
O’Brien’s deputy, Matt Pottinger, concurred, telling Trump it could be as bad as the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans. Pottinger warned Trump that asymptomatic spread was occurring in China: He had been told 50% of those infected showed no symptoms.
At that time, there were fewer than a dozen reported coronavirus cases in the US.
“Presidents are the executive branch. There was a duty to warn. To listen, to plan, and to take care,” Woodward writes. But in the days following the January 28 briefing, Trump used high-profile appearances to minimize the threat and, Woodward writes, “to reassure the public they faced little risk.”
Asked by Woodward in May if he remembered O’Brien’s January 28 warning that the virus would be the biggest national security threat of his presidency, Trump equivocated. “No, I don’t.” Trump said. “I’m sure if he said it — you know, I’m sure he said it. Nice guy.”
The book highlights how the President took all of the credit and none of the responsibility for his actions related to the pandemic, which has infected 6 million Americans and killed more than 185,000 in the US.
“The virus has nothing to do with me,” Trump told Woodward in their final interview in July. “It’s not my fault. It’s — China let the damn virus out.”
‘It goes through the air’
When Woodward spoke to Trump on February 7, two days after he was acquitted on impeachment charges by the Senate, Woodward expected a lengthy conversation about the trial. He was surprised, however, by the President’s focus on the virus. At the same time that Trump and his public health officials were saying the virus was “low risk,” Trump divulged to Woodward that the night before he’d spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping about the virus. Woodward quotes Trump as saying, “We’ve got a little bit of an interesting setback with the virus going in China.”
“It goes through the air,” Trump said. “That’s always tougher than the touch. You don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
By March 19, when Trump told Woodward he was purposely downplaying the dangers to avoid creating a panic, he also acknowledged the threat to young people. “Just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old, older. Young people too, plenty of young people,” Trump said.
‘Dangerous’ and ‘unfit’
Woodward, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, conducted hundreds of hours of confidential background interviews with firsthand witnesses for “Rage,” and he obtained “notes, emails, diaries, calendars and confidential documents,” including more than two dozen letters Trump exchanged with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Woodward is known to record his interviews with the permission of his subjects and sources.
He writes that when he attributes exact quotations, thoughts or conclusions, that information comes either from the person, a colleague with direct knowledge or documents.
Trump’s conscious downplaying of the coronavirus is one of numerous revelations in “Rage.” The book is filled with anecdotes about top cabinet officials blindsided by tweets, frustrated with Trump’s inability to focus and scared about his next policy directive because he refused to accept facts or listen to experts:
— Mattis is quoted as saying Trump is “dangerous,” “unfit,” has “no moral compass” and took foreign policy actions that showed adversaries “how to destroy America.” After Mattis left the administration, he and Coats discussed whether they needed to take “collective action” to speak out publicly against Trump. Mattis says he ultimately resigned after Trump announced he was withdrawing US troops from Syria, “when I was basically directed to do something that I thought went beyond stupid to felony stupid.”
— Woodward writes that Coats and his top staff members “examined the intelligence as carefully as possible,” and that Coats still questions the relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Coats saw how extraordinary it was for the president’s top intelligence official to harbor such deep suspicions about the president’s relationship with Putin. But he could not shake them.”
— Woodward reports that Trump’s national security team expressed concerns the US may have come close to nuclear war with North Korea amid provocations in 2017. “We never knew whether it was real,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is quoted as saying, “or whether it was a bluff.” But it was so serious that Mattis slept in his clothes to be ready in case there was a North Korean launch and repeatedly went to the Washington National Cathedral to pray.
— Trump boasted to Woodward about a new secret weapons system. “I have built a nuclear — a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before,” Trump said. Woodward says other sources confirmed the information, without providing further details, but expressed surprise that Trump disclosed it.
— Woodward obtained the 27 “love letters” Trump exchanged with Kim Jong Un, 25 of which have not been reported publicly. The letters, filled with flowery language, provide a fascinating window into their relationship. Kim flatters Trump by repeatedly calling him “Your Excellency,” and writes in one letter that meeting again would be “reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film.” In another, Kim writes that the “deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force.” CNN has obtained the transcripts of two of the letters.
— Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner also weighs in with some unusual literary insights about his father-in-law. Kushner is quoted as saying that four texts are key to understanding Trump, including “Alice in Wonderland.” Kushner paraphrased the Cheshire Cat: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”
— Woodward pressed Trump on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Once again, Trump dismissed the US intelligence assessment and defends bin Salman: “He says very strongly that he didn’t do it.”
— Trump insulted his predecessors, saying Woodward made former President George W. Bush “look like a stupid moron, which he was.” Trump said of former President Barack Obama: “I don’t think Obama’s smart … I think he’s highly overrated. And I don’t think he’s a great speaker.” He also tells Woodward that Kim Jong Un thought Obama was an “asshole.”
— Woodward discussed the Black Lives Matter protests and suggested to the President that people like the two of them — “White, privileged” — need to work to understand the anger and pain that Black people feel in the US. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you,” Trump responded, repeating his outrageous talking point that he’s done more for the Black community than any president besides Abraham Lincoln.
— Woodward reports new details on Russia’s election meddling, writing that the NSA and CIA have classified evidence the Russians had placed malware in the election registration systems of at least two Florida counties, St. Lucie and Washington. While there was no evidence the malware had been activated, Woodward writes, it was sophisticated and could erase voters in specific districts. The voting system vendor used by Florida was also used in states across the country.
‘Dynamite behind the door’
“Rage” is a follow-up to Woodward’s 2018 bestselling book “Fear,” which portrayed a chaotic White House in which aides hid papers from Trump to protect the country from what they viewed as his most dangerous impulses.
While Trump slammed “Fear,” he also complained that he didn’t speak to Woodward for the book, which resulted in his agreeing to extensive interviews for “Rage.”
However, on August 14, Trump preemptively attacked Woodward’s new book, tweeting, “The Bob Woodward book will be a FAKE, as always, just as many of the others have been.”
Throughout the book, Trump provides insights into his view of the presidency. He tells Woodward when you’re running the country, “There’s dynamite behind every door.”
After his 18 interviews, Woodward issues a stark verdict: Trump is the “dynamite behind the door.” Woodward concludes his book with a declaration that “Trump is the wrong man for the job.”